Dread Head – How Resident Evil 4 Adds Terror to Headshots
Resident Evil 4 marked a wild new direction for the franchise (which we’re excited to see remade). No more fixed camera angles or tank controls. Just freely shooting hordes of intelligent, persistent monsters. Hide on a roof and they’ll throw molotovs. Barricade yourself in a room and they’ll break in. Take too long to aim and they huck axes. Some argued this action focus made the game less horrifying, but seeing ten infected men with axes bearing down on you is pretty scary to me.
This shift in play style made for a bigger focus on action, sure, but the developers were cruel geniuses in their work to preserve terror. This was why you faced hordes of foes. Why you had to stand still to aim, staring down your gruesome enemies. This was why the headshot, long-time killing staple of just about any game with guns, was used against you. Instead of killing your foe outright, a headshot had a chance to create a new, more dangerous foe instead.
Resident Evil 4’s headshots, like most games, caused a ton of extra damage. It’s harder to hit the head, but the damage trade makes it worth it. Plus, you’d get a nice, meaty pop. Even if you didn’t, it would stun foes, setting them up for a roundhouse kick or suplex. More damage is always welcome when you’ve got this many guys throwing dynamite at you. Sometimes, however, a nasty parasite would come out of the new hole in your enemy’s neck, making your life infinitely worse.
These creatures, called the Plagas, need to be an instant priority when they show up. The base model Plaga could swing a blade that hit you at long range, changing how you needed to fight a group. The next one could bite your head off, killing you instantly. Always a fun surprise when I didn’t notice those. The third could spew acid, separate from the host body, and attach to your face. So, they add a lot of extra trouble when they show up, because most of these enemy groups are hard enough to juggle on their own.
The Plagas also appear when you kill certain enemies throughout Resident Evil 4, so it’s not always your fault when the pop up. Still, killing enemies with headshots increases your chances of encountering them. This meant that, instead of making things easier with a headshot, more often you’d put yourself in deeper trouble.
This created a unique kind of fear for the player. What was once a tool to help you has been turned on you. You take a headshot and get a little twinge of relief, knowing at least one enemy is dead. Then, you notice the body is still shuffling toward you, and something comes shooting out of its neck. Sickening fluids spray everywhere as this flailing tentacle bursts out, swinging a blade. It lashes out at you from across the room, and suddenly, your entire plan for this encounter needs to change. The game takes your newfound confidence and feelings of relief and shatters them. It shows you that, when you feel most capable, you are still vulnerable.
Resident Evil 4’s Plagas do several things to the player. For one, they throw the player off their intended plan. Their range and attacks are so different and dangerous that you need to deal with them carefully. So, they often threw me into a panic when they showed up. Not to the point where I lost control, but enough that I would screw up, or I would miss other foes while I was focusing on the Plaga. This helped preserve a sense of fear as I played, as I never could quite fully commit to a plan. Things were bound to change in some way I didn’t expect.
The next aspect is that they’re surprisingly durable monsters despite looking flimsy. They eat up precious ammo and healing that you just don’t have to waste in this game. They’re also hard to hit, often increasing the waste. Sure, you can one-shot them with a flash grenade, but that’s about the only real use I found for that style of grenade. It forced me to waste inventory slots (which are also in short supply) just in case I had to deal with them.
That extra danger and cost made me not want to take headshots any more, and that’s the ingenious part of Resident Evil 4. The Plagas made for so much trouble in combat that I avoided shooting the head, taking away a handy combat tool and forcing me to spend more time dealing with enemies. My shots had to be more precise because it took more ammo to kill things. I had to heal more because I was in combat longer, taking more damage. I had to be careful to avoid accidentally shooting the head due to erratic enemy movements, making every shot tense. Then, I would have to deal with the accidental headshots or times when a Plaga would pop out anyway, enduring the panic and new challenges that came next.
Also, If you’ve played games for any amount of time, that headshot is a reflex at this point. It’s something you do without even thinking about it. You just know that it is your best bet for getting rid of enemies fast. It works the same way in Resident Evil 4! Except now, you have that decent chance that something worse will need to be dealt with.
This means you have to constantly focus on this possibility. You need to keep it in mind so you don’t forget and blast an enemy in the face by accident, adding more danger when you wanted less. This means it’s always in the back of your mind. What if I accidentally hit one in the head with the shotgun, freeing a Plaga? Maybe that makes you rely on the handgun a bit more to keep yourself safe. But doesn’t that increase your risk from regular enemies as you try to avoid spawning Plagas, since you’re using a weaker gun more often to be careful?
Alternatively, you keep taking headshots by accident, releasing Plagas and adding further mayhem to Resident Evil 4. You forget and let reflexes take over, which adds some unsettling, frightening surprises that force your strategies into chaos. They add an element of randomness to combat that keep it from getting stale, and keep players from getting complacent.
I’ve heard it argued that having guns in horror makes it difficult to be afraid. How scared can you be when you can just shoot your enemy? This game shows that you can still be very, very scared with a shotgun in your hands. A wall of durable, relentless bodies coming toward you makes that gun feel pretty feeble. Plus, knowing that something could come popping out of an enemy head just when you thought you’d killed them makes for a fearful situation.
At their core, the Plagas make players fear the headshot. A headshot is a time when the player is normally most confident in their abilities. When that blood spurts from the head or it explodes, you know you’re safer. You know you’re a good shot. It’s a time when you feel strong and capable, which is far from feeling afraid. Resident Evil 4 turns that moment around on you, making you feel further endangered, as well as hesitant to use that tool ever again. It forces you to relearn how to shoot, adding discomfort and uncertainty, or it forces you to face new dangers, causing you to be continually reacting rather than planning.
The game’s developers worked hard to make an action game into a chilling experience with its enemy intelligence and actions. They did it with the setting and narrative. Most impressively, they did it by examining what makes players feel powerful and safe with firearms, and then they used that against them. You should feel powerful and effective when you pull off a headshot, but with Resident Evil 4’’s Plaga enemy, you were instead left feeling afraid of that random chance of added danger, or fearful that your own skills would make things worse for you. It’s an incredible piece of design, and one of the many reasons why it’s my favorite in the series.